Pilate’s question: Rationality and the definition of “rational” in the modern era

I encountered an interesting phenomenon on the Internet the other week. Somewhere, on some forum someplace, someone was describing a self diagnosis that seemed, at best, medically suspect. And said poster was aware of it. But what struck me wasn’t the diagnosis itself; what struck me was how the person defended it. The original poster said, I know this sounds weird, but I’m a pretty rational person.

I don’t understand the use of the word “rational” these days. Merriam-Webster–to use that old chestnut–says that rational means “having reason or understanding; relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason: reasonable,” the last word being a synonym, “being in accordance with reason.” Perhaps the modern understanding of rational is thinking that follows the ley lines of logic. What people tend to forget is that rationality depends on where you stand.

Logical, rational thinking is defined by culture and circumstance. That’s why, in some cultures, possession is an accepted explanation for sudden personality changes. A head injury? Psh. People hit their heads all the time and are fine. We’re talking about spirits that we’ve been culturally aware of for generations. OK, to use an example that’s closer to home, we may realize, on an intellectual level, that forms like chairs are made out of atoms, spinning endlessly in space with a Zeno-esque infinity between them. But on the empirical level, a chair is a solid object. So which understanding of “chair” is the rational one? Presumably the latter because we deal with chairs on an empirical, rather than on a quantum, level. But is it a false understanding? Which understanding is true?

Somewhere along the line, words like “rational” and “rationality” replaced “gospel” as meaning a direct conduit between Man and some kind of Universal Truth. William of Ockham might say that simplicity is the measure of truth. Karl Popper might say that testability is the measure of truth. But I keep thinking of a verse from the Gospel of John–and I realize it’s a work of theology or literature first and a piece of history as a distant third–in which Pontius Pilate is interrogating Jesus and asks: “What is truth?” Before Jesus can answer–if he tried to answer, if he had an answer–Pilate turns and leaves his presence. In a way, I don’t think we’ve progressed at all from Pilate’s question. What is truth anyway?

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